In some pieces, Maeng Wookjae adorns his ceramic animal sculptures on wooden plaques that resemble the severed heads of big game. The kind you would see in a trigger-happy Safari hunter’s lodgings. But they’re not the installations of a taxidermist. They’re ceramic, and thus fragile, just like the wild and vulnerable animals that Wookjae sculpts.
Auguste Rodin once said, “nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.” His words could not be more relevant than to Maeng Wookjae – who’s artistic expression was found during his time spent travelling to North America. I interviewed the South Korean artist himself, and his environmental conscience struck me just as potently as his sculptures do.
What is the significance of the gold eyes in your ceramic sculptures?
They can be shown to audiences in several ways. First, people can see themselves reflected in the shiny gold eyes. The scenery on the eyes represents our very plentiful environment, which can be compared with a plentiful environment for other creatures too. It also represents how the animals look from our human perspective. The colour of gold doesn’t always seem cold because it is metallic – there is warmness in it.
Would you say that one of the biggest turning points of your career were your visits to North America? If so, why?
Yes, my work changed after visiting North America. I went to a residence program called the Archie Bray foundation, after finishing my M.F.A in Korea. The environment was quite rural in comparison to life in Seoul, which is a very crowded city. I had wondrous, fresh experiences such as several chances to meet wild animals face to face.
For example, a friend of mine and I drove to another friend’s house and there was a deer on the narrow road. Usually wild animals run away from people but the deer was standing in the middle of the road. The deer looked at the ground and us several times. When I looked closer, I saw a dead baby deer. I can’t still forgot the moment of having eye contact with the mother deer.
Another moment I strongly recall was a time where I was on the way to home and found a huge dead deer by the road. I felt so sorry and immensely sad. At that time, some teenagers walked through the area and one guy loudly said something to the dead deer and spat on its carcass. I was really surprised and I tried to understand that situation. I thought maybe a wild animal injured one of his family or friends.
And then I started to have a deep concern about the relationship between humans and animals. I continued my North America trip with a residency at the Banff Centre in Canada. And I had more priceless experiences with wild animals.
Let’s talk a little bit about your most recent work – Family. What was the creative process and inspiration behind that?
It began with the thought “Are we a family?” I combined humans and other life forms on the works. Some people see the work; view it positively, friendly and relate to it. I wanted to lead people to think and talk about our environmental conditions with other creatures.
Have you noticed a difference between the reactions of your Western and Far-Eastern audiences? In other words – how do Americans and Europeans react to work in comparison to Koreans?
From what I’ve seen, the western audience are more interested in my works than Koreans. I think it’s because of the difference in perspective about how both cultures view art. My works focus on presenting social issues and environmental issues rather than an expression of beauty. Young people in Korea show an interest [in my work], and try to understand my expression, but a lot of the older audience don’t think it’s an art piece. They might just think ‘it’s not related to my life’, although my works tell a story about universal issues. The art market in Korea is small and restricted to the very famous artists. But it’s beginning to get better now.
As well as being represented by the Mindy Solomon gallery like you, Kate MacDowell’s work is rather similar to yours. I wanted to ask you if you would you consider doing a collaborative work with her?
I’ve seen her artwork on the web. And I like her work. It could be interesting to do something with her – I think it’s always good showing works together that convey similar themes.
If you had to choose, who are your top 5 favourite contemporary artists?
Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley, Damien Hirst, Olafur Eliasson, Clare Twomey.
What can we expect from Maeng Wookjae in 2016?
Recently, I’m trying to make an exhibition through an installation. I find that installations are a more effective way to connect my works to audiences. So I will challenge myself to make this creative way of expression.